NL Starters for a Buck: Bud Norris

I remember once remarking that Bud Norris had signed a deal with the devil.

In his first major league start in 2009, Norris struck out Albert Pujols. A lot of folks could go home happy based purely on that outcome. But Norris got greedy and had a no hitter through 6 IP against a very good Cardinals lineup that ultimately won the Central division. He won that game, going 7 IP, giving up just 2 hits and striking out 5.

Since then, he’s been a pretty mixed bag of big strikeout numbers along with big walks, home runs and an unfortunately concomitant ERA and WHIP. He has shown flashes of ace material followed by stretches of unadulterated awfulness. As Zach so aptly put it in the NL SP Rankings, “If you need strikeouts, Bud Norris is your man. If you need below average production in every other category, Bud Norris is still your man.”

But can Norris possibly help your fantasy team on the cheap?

What’s tantalizing about Norris is obviously the strikeouts, with a major league career average of 9.11 K/9. Despite his weak showing this Spring, Norris is all but guaranteed a spot in the rotation, and there aren’t too many starters that can flirt with 200 K’s in 185 innings of work, not to mention not many of similar ilk that you can obtain for $1. Norris rather breezed through the minors and demonstrated a good deal of success in the particularly inhospitable PCL where he had a 2.67 ERA, 1.329 WHIP, and 8.4 K/9 over 134 IP, so it’s not as if he’s a complete stranger to achievement from 60′ 6″.

Norris’ repertoire is basically fastball/slider with a change to keep you on your toes. His fastball sits around 94 but it’s the slider that carries the K rate.  He uses his fastball a little over half the time and his slider about a third. The results look like this (click to see details):

His fastball is pretty nasty, but his slider can make you look downright stupid. In fact, the slider was worth 10.7 runs above average, which gives his slider company with that of Adam Wainwright, Max Scherzer, and Josh Johnson. The big problem, however, is that he uses his slider most in two-strike counts and it’s the whole getting to such a count that Norris seems to struggle with, highlighted by this mess:

Norris has a notoriously hard time finding the strike zone, particularly with his fastball, and this image lifted from pitch f/x data over at just gives us a visual to what we already know – that his 4.51 BB/9 rate is holding him back (image on four seam fastballs only).

However, recall that Norris only has just a little over 200 major league innings under his belt, he just turned 26 this month, and while he wasn’t Greg Maddux in the minors, he didn’t struggle this mightily with his control. His minor league track record shows a 3.7 BB/9 whereas he has been about 4.4 BB/9 at the big league level, so perhaps there’s a little room for improvement without major adjustments.

Reading the proverbial tea leaves, there might be some evidence of slightly better days ahead for Norris. His strand rate was probably a tad low at 67.1% and, related to that was his FIP and xFIP which were both well shy of his near 5.00 ERA at 4.17 and 4.12, respectively. He also was getting a little unlucky by hit trajectory. His BABIP on fly balls was a notch higher than league average, but he was getting a bit of a raw deal on grounders and particularly line drives, which were almost all dropping for base hits, it seems:

It’s hard to call his splits encouraging since a 4.18 ERA and 1.41 WHIP aren’t anything to pen the folks over, but at the very least he appeared to improve quite a bit in the second half:

Pre break: : 5.97 ERA, 1.59 WHIP, 63.1 IP, 70 H, 69K’s 31 BB vs.

Post break: 4.18 ERA, 1.41 WHIP, 90.1 IP, 81 H, 89 K’s, 46 BB

Norris also possesses one of the most unlikely home/road splits I’ve seen in a while.  Taking a look at his ERA, FIP, xFIP, BAA and BABIP at home and on the road, one wonders if his home stats are closer to his true talent level (not likely) or if he was just horribly unlucky on the road (likely):

What’s it all add up to?

I tend to believe Norris will improve this year, partly because of his splits, a belief that he’s better learning how to pitch at the big league level, and partly because I think his strand rate will normalize along with the possibility that his BABIP will trend towards something more league-average. But a lot depends on his ability to throw more strikes, and gambling on that possibility may not be worth a dollar on draft day. But if it’s strikeouts you need, you just might get this guy (notice he’s still throwing 95 in the 7th), and with any luck, perhaps he makes strides in other areas to help your team as well.

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Michael was born in Massachusetts and grew up in the Seattle area but had nothing to do with the Heathcliff Slocumb trade although Boston fans are welcome to thank him. You can find him on twitter at @michaelcbarr.

4 Responses to “NL Starters for a Buck: Bud Norris”

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  1. Pablo says:

    I’d buy that for a dollar!

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  2. Jimbo says:

    He doubled the rate of changeup use in 2010, getting it closer to that “seed in the hitters mind” AND over the course of the year he expanded the mph gap between change and fastball. Started at about a 6mph gap–which convention says isn’t enough–and gradually worked it to almost a 10mph separation by the end of the year. I like that trend! (and pitch f/x graphs!!!)

    Looking at his heatmap on changeups, he does seem to be able to locate it…shading the outer half of the plate against both lh and rh batters. So I see promising development with that 3rd pitch.

    Also, if you look at the daily trend for his LOB% there’s a distinct step up toward the end of the season. Just enough to make you wonder if he figured something out…namely how to better avoid the big inning.

    I remember an analysis done a while back that suggested most pitchers find their groove after or around 40 starts. Since then I’ve usually shied away from rookie starters. Well, Bud is sitting on a nice 37 games started in his career.

    So I really like him as the definition of a quality sleeper. Could turn into Max Scherzer, could revert to prior form. But at a late round, or $1 pricetag…I’ll take a staff full of guys like this and then weed out the gems/busts in-season.

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  3. Nick Tenaglia says:

    Everything I have seen from him has shown an upward trend and/or a fair share of bad luck/poor defense.

    His HR and BB rates were in the bottom 3rd for SPs in 2010 with at least 150 IP. That alone will kill any value that he has. But if he can lower the walk rate into the high 3′s or low 4′s and lower the HR rate into a more reasonable 0.8 range, then his ERA/WHIP should see a decent enough boost to make him a more than successful $1 SP.

    Hell, I traded Cole Hamels for Romero and Norris – so he better perform this season!

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    • Michael Barr says:

      Nick, I hope you’re right, I really do. I like to watch Norris pitch and I’d like to see him be successful. But there’s just not a whole lot that would suggest Norris is ready to reduce his walks to his minor league levels and pitching at Minute Maid is always going to have an effect on his HR rates, which are likely to remain in double digits. Strand rate and splits might point to a little improvement, but it’s not enough to make me draft him as anything other than bench stash for now.

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